The City of Glendale, Arizona called an emergency city council meeting tonight for one purpose: to vote on terminating the Arizona Coyotes’ lease at Gila River Arena. You may remember two years ago, when the Coyotes seemed bound for anywhere but the desert as the franchise’s reported financial losses piled up and the city faced bankruptcy in what could be considered the worst stadium deal in North America.
The NHL even bought the team and operated it for a while, waiting for an ownership group to come in and operate the team, hopefully not at a loss. The deal struck included a payment from Glendale to the Coyote owners’ arena management wing of $15 million per year over 15 years on top of $50 million in subsidies up front. That’s right, the city is paying the team to stay. Glendale was supposed to get limited event revenues, and because the team’s future was supposed to be secure, there were fewer worries about the city’s ability to handle ongoing arena debt. Eventually the team would start winning again and the money would roll in for both parties.
That money never came. The Coyotes haven’t averaged more than 13,000 per game in attendance since 2009. They haven’t been in the playoffs since 2012. Other than the small number of hardcore fans, no one came. The $15 million operating subsidy from the city roughly covers the lost revenue from 4,000 empty seats every home game when compared to other teams. No one’s happy. The current mayor and council have expressed displeasure with the Coyotes, the NFL over the Super Bowl, and its two spring training MLB tenants, the Dodgers and White Sox (at Camelback Ranch). Glendale has overextended itself time and time again, spending so much on pro sports and getting less than zero out of it. And unlike the arrangement at the Coliseum for the two venues there, Glendale, a city about the same size as Fremont, funded the arena itself.
All of this drama set the stage for the big vote. Supporters of the Coyotes came in from all around the West Valley to denounce the plan to kill the lease. The trigger for the lease termination was not about the losses, though the Coyotes have the ability to leave on their own if they accrue $50 million in losses over five years. Instead, Glendale cited a conflict of interest, which allegedly occurred when Glendale’s former city attorney took a position with the Coyotes shortly after the lease was approved in 2013.
After public testimony was cut off, those on the dais made a few comments, culminating with a 5-2 vote to terminate the lease. The Coyotes responded within minutes, threatening to sue Glendale for up to $200 million.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
GLENDALE, ARIZONA — Arizona Coyotes Co-Owner, President and CEO Anthony LeBlanc issued the following statement following tonight’s Glendale City Council meeting.
‘We are disappointed with the city’s decision to violate its obligations under the agreement that was entered into and duly approved only two years ago. We will exhaust any and all legal remedies against the city of Glendale for this blatant violation of its contractual obligations to us.’
One thing to note is that the Coyotes had themselves reported $34.8 million in losses for 2014-15 season alone. The team’s well on its way to hitting that $50 million mark, and the only consolation it can provide to Glendale is that the city’s loss will be $6 million as opposed to the projected $7 million before the season.
Coyotes fans don’t deserve to go through all of the drama built up over the past decade. Yet they’re powerless, as fans often are. Their limited numbers don’t impress NHL brass, who stalled as long as they could while fighting off relocation rumors and threats. Right now three cities are considered frontrunners for a move, which could come this fall.
- Las Vegas – A new arena on the Strip is being built by MGM and AEG. While its primary purpose is to be a major concert venue, it will have the capacity to host NHL and NBA teams. The arena won’t be ready until 2016, so a relocated Coyotes squad would play at the MGM Grand Garden Arena or Thomas and Mack Center for a year or so.
- Seattle – Arena efforts have largely stalled since efforts to buy and move the Kings to the Emerald City died. NHL is also on the radar, though basketball is clearly the primary focus. A rival arena plan has been proposed for Tukwila, not far from SeaTac airport.
- Quebec City – A brand new venue is nearing completion, and could be ready to host the Coyotes in September. The downside is that a move to Quebec would also cause the league to embark on another round of realignment. The already shorthanded Western Conference (14 teams) would send another one to the East (16 teams), forcing another team to move to the West.
Northern California cities such as San Francisco and Sacramento are not in the offing because both have built-in revenue competition from basketball teams, and the Warriors’ and Kings’ new venues won’t be optimized for hockey. If the NHL is going to move the Coyotes, they’ll go to a place that has minimal competition and an arena with few scheduling conflicts.
The Coyotes and Glendale could also reach some sort of truce, allowing both to co-exist and renew their partnership. It’s hard to see that as every bridge has been burned. The team is bringing legal action Thursday, so the battle is just beginning.